X Close Menu

Romans 9:1-5

[Before beginning your study of Romans 9, I suggest you read the material on the Purpose of Romans 9-11 found elsewhere in this series of studies.]

IV.          God's Purpose with Israel - 9:1-11:36

A.            Israel's Fall - 9:1-33


1.             Paul's pain - 9:1-5


a.              the passion of an apostle - vv. 1-3


1)             his woe - vv. 1-2


Although Paul says some harsh things about the Jews (2:9,17-29; 3:9,29; 4:9-18; 9:25-10:5,19-21; 11:1ff.), there can be no doubt about his deep and passionate love for his kinsmen according to the flesh. Note the five-fold nature of Paul's assertion, the cumulative force of which is to eliminate any doubt regarding the sincerity of his heart:


(1)           "I am telling the truth" - We would naturally assume this to be true, but Paul anticipates that the nature of the assertion to follow might cause some to question his veracity.


(2)           "I am telling the truth in Christ" - By this he means that "union with Christ is the orbit within which his emotions move and the spring from which they proceed. Thus the thing spoken of as 'the truth' derives its impulse and the guarantee of its propriety from this union" (Murray, 2:1). In other words, Paul's declaration of love for the Jews is made with all the veracity of Christ himself, i.e., as if it were Jesus Christ himself speaking. Jesus, says Paul, is the ultimate guarantor of the truth of my words.


(3)           "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying" - This negative counterpart to the opening assertion ("I am telling the truth") is designed to emphasize again that his passion is not feigned (cf. 2 Cor. 11:31; Gal. 1:20; 1 Tim. 2:7).


(4)           "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness" - "Conscience" in Paul's writings is an innate faculty that monitors a person's conformity to a moral standard (see Rom. 2:15). Paul declares that he has "a clear conscience" regarding what is to follow. He knows both theologically and intuitively that he is telling the truth as it is found in his heart.


(5)           "I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit." Just as "the certification of his earlier assertion is derived from union with Christ, so the veracity of the witness of his conscience is certified by the Holy Spirit. It is only as we are indwelt by the Spirit and live in the Spirit, only as our minds are governed by the Spirit may we be assured that the voice of conscience is in conformity with truth and right" (Murray, 2:2).


2)             his wish - v. 3


The connecting word "for" (v. 3) indicates this sentence will in some sense be an explanation of or given the reason for his anguish (v. 2). Several comments are in order:


(1)           The statement "I could wish" is probably a prayer, for three reasons: first, the parallel with Moses in Ex. 32:31ff.; second, of the other 6 occurrences of the verb in the NT, 5 refer to prayer (Acts 26:29; 2 Cor. 13:7,9; James 5:16; 3 John 2); and third, Gordon Wiles has shown that such wishes are in most cases prayers transposed for use in a letter. Consequently, a wish such as we find in Romans 9 is simply "the expression of a desire that God take action regarding the person(s) mentioned in the wish" (Paul's Intercessory Prayers [London: Cambridge, 1974], p. 22; for other examples of "wish-prayers" see Rom. 15:5,13; 16:20; 1 Thess. 3:11-12; 5:23; 1 Cor. 1:8).


(2)           Paul appears, then, to be praying: "Lord, if sending me to hell will save the Jews, do it!" But can this be possible? Some argue that Paul used to pray for this, but then came to his senses and realized that such a petition is inappropriate for a Christian to pray. Others suggest that Paul only contemplated praying for this but never actually did so. Most likely Paul means to say that he would have prayed for this had it been permissible. Had the end in view been something genuinely attainable by a believer he would have prayed for it. This is called the desiderative imperfect: 'I could almost wish.' One contemplates the desire, but does not come to the point of actually making it the express focus of one's wish. Paul knew all too well that it was, in fact, theologically impossible for him to be severed from Christ and condemned. Several verses earlier he had clearly affirmed this fact (Rom. 8:31-39).


[The Greek imperfect tense, as is used here explains Moo, fills in for the optative and denotes "a present-time action that is potential or attempted but never carried out" 558).]


(3)           The word translated accursed is lit., anathema. It refers to something delivered over to God, either a) as a consecrated gift or offering (Lk. 21:5) or, b) as something or someone delivered over to divine wrath and eternal condemnation (1 Cor. 12:3; 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9). In sum, it means to forfeit one's salvation and to be consigned to eternal wrath and perdition.


(4)           The full extent of what it means to be anathema is defined as being "separated from Christ", i.e., to be eternally excluded from fellowship with Christ Jesus (Mt. 7:23; 25:41).


The force of Paul's prayer is explained by John Piper:


"Our artificial chapter and verse divisions obscure the fact that, when Romans was read in the churches, 9:3 would have been heard only seconds after 8:35 which asks, 'Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Therefore, Paul's statement in 9:3 must be taken to mean that he 'could wish' to experience what 8:35-39 said the Christian never would experience: to be separated from the love of God in Christ and left under his eternal (2 Thess. 1:9) wrath (Rom. 5:9)" (29).


[Here Paul appears to ponder the hypothetical possibility of a world in which such a thing might be possible. Piper explains the ramifications of this:


"Suppose there were a world in which an unconverted sinner and a man of faith could stand before the bar of God to receive judgment. And suppose that if the saint is willing, God would reverse their roles. If the saint is willing, God would withdraw his saving grace from the saint so he becomes fit for hell in unbelief and rebellion, and he would give converting grace to the unbeliever so that he trusts Christ and becomes fit for heaven.


In such a world, what would love require? It would require total self-sacrifice. . . . But mark well! This hypothetical world does not exist! God did not create a world in which a person could be eternally damned for an act of love.


In the real world God made, we are never asked to make such a choice: Are you willing to become damnable for the salvation of others? Instead, we are constantly told that doing good to others will bring us great reward, and that we should pursue that reward.


Paradoxically, Paul's willingness to reach for a hypothetical case of ultimate sacrifice is a deep and dramatic way of saying with as much force as he knows how, 'This, even this, is how much I delight in the prospect of Israel's salvation!' But immediately we see the impossibility of carrying through the wish: If their salvation were such a great delight to him, would hell really be hell? Could we really speak of hell as the place where Paul achieved his deepest and noblest desire of love? This is the sort of incongruity you run into in hypothetical worlds that do not exist.


Happiness would be impossible in any case in such a world. For if God gave a saint the option of becoming damnable to save another, such a saint could never live with himself if he said no. And he would suffer forever in hell if he said yes. He loses both ways" (Desiring God, 246-47).


Add to this yet another problem. The person who would be saved as a result of such incredible self-sacrifice on the part of another believer would then himself/herself be in a similar position: he/she would in turn ask God to be accursed for the person who before asked God to be accursed in the place of the person who is now saved by that sacrificial act. Such "sacrificial substitution" would go on endlessly and, obviously, absurdly.]


b.             the privileges of a nation - vv. 4-5


The structure of these verses is instructive. Literally, it reads:


(1)           who are Israelites

(2)           whose (are)


                                    the sonship (huiothesia)

and the glory (doxa)

and the covenants (diathekai)

and the giving of Law (nomothesia)

and the service (latreia)

and the promises (epangeliai)


(3)           whose (are)


the fathers


(4)           and from whom (is)


the Christ according to the flesh, who is God over all, blessed forever, amen.


Note that "the fathers" is set apart from the preceding six privileges by the presence of its own relative pronoun: "whose (are) . . . " Paul did this lest a seventh member of the list destroy the symmetry of the three rhyming pairs that precede it. Also, "the fathers" is masculine in gender whereas the preceding six privileges are all feminine. Note also that these six words fall into three pairs on the basis of identical endings: one and four, two and five, three and six. Piper believes that "the willingness to choose some words on the basis of rhyme or assonance implies that the meaning may lie more in the total, unified impact of the six-fold group than in the separate, distinct meanings of each member" (p. 6). For example, Paul used the less common nomothesiainstead of nomos because it rhymes with huiothesia, and the plural diathekaiinstead of the singular diatheke because it rhymes with epangeliai.


1)             the title Israel - a general statement of honor designed to sum up and embrace the items that follow (Gen. 32:22-28; John 1:31,47,49; 3:10; 12:13).


2)             adoption as sons - Ex. 4:22-23; Dt. 14:1; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1; Mal. 1:6; 2:10. "Adoption" here obviously means something different from the adoption of Christians in Romans 8. As Moo says, "the term is Paul's way of summing up the OT teaching about Israel as 'God's son'" (562).


3)             the glory - refers to "the glory that abode upon and appeared on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:16,17), the glory that covered and filled the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34-38), the glory that appeared upon the mercy-seat in the holy of holies (Lev. 16:2), the glory of the Lord that filled the temple (1 Kings 8:10,11; 2 Chron. 7:1,2; cf. Ezek. 1:28). This glory was the sign of God's presence with Israel and certified to Israel that God dwelt among them and met with them (cf. Exod. 29:42-46)" (Murray, 2:5).


4)             the covenants - Cf. Eph. 2:12.


5)             the giving of the Law - is the translation of one Greek word that can mean either a) the action or event of law-giving at Sinai, or b) the law itself with emphasis on the possession of that which is given.


6)             the service - i.e., the sacrificial system, the Temple, and everything associated with worship under the Old Covenant (cf. Heb. 9:1-7).


7)             the promises - Gal. 3:16; Rom. 15:8; Eph. 2:12; 2 Cor. 1:20.


8)             the fathers - probably Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David.


9)             the Messiah - which is "the supreme privilege, the supreme dignity of the Jewish people -- the fact that the Messiah Himself is, so far as His human nature, His existence as man, is concerned, of their race" (Cranfield, 2:464). It is important to note that the Messiah is not described as "belonging" to the Israelites but "is from" them. "The shift is significant," writes Moo, "suggesting, as do vv. 2-3, that the Israelites, for all the privileges they enjoy, have not, as a group, come into genuine relationship with God's Messiah and the salvation that he has brought" (565). The Messiah comes from Israel only in respect to that relationship which is strictly human (the "flesh").


a)             his dominion - "over all"


b)             his deity - "God blessed forever"


There are several ways to punctuate and thus to translate v. 5.


1)             ". . . of whom is Christ according to the flesh, who [i.e., Jesus Christ] is over all, God blessed forever, Amen." Or, ". . . of whom is Christ according to the flesh, who [Christ] is God over all, blessed forever, Amen." This translation predicates absolute deity of the Lord Jesus. Most commentators acknowledge that the grammar and context justify it.


2)             Others place a full stop after the word "flesh" and read the final phrase as a doxology to God the Father. Hence, ". . . of whom is Christ according to the flesh. He who is God [the Father] over all be [or, "is"] blessed forever, Amen." Or another variation would be, ". . . of whom is Christ according to the flesh. He who is over all is God [the Father], blessed forever, Amen."


3)             Some place a comma after "flesh" and a full stop after "all". Thus, the clause "he who is over all" refers to Christ but "God be blessed forever, Amen" remains a doxology to the Father. Hence, ". . . of whom is Christ according to the flesh, who is over all. God [the Father] be blessed forever, Amen."


In the final analysis, only theological prejudice against the doctrine of the deity of Jesus Christ can account for someone opting for views 2) or 3).